Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Chemical Cowboys: The Club King Of New York

Gatien Opens Limelight

The Episcopalian Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue and 20th Street is a grand piece of architecture designed by Richard Upjohn in 1844 as a Gothic-inspired house of worship with fifty-foot-high ceilings and stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes. The church attained landmark status in 1966 but fell on hard times and was deconsecrated in 1972. By 1983, when Gatien purchased the building, it was Odyssey House, a rehab center and refuge for recovering addicts. Gatien poured millions of dollars into its redesign: the main dance floor and stage area featured a high-tech sound and light system, and a half-dozen staircases led clubgoers to sprawling lounges, DJ booths, cozy alcoves, and VIP rooms.

Peter Gatien in Limelight
Peter Gatien in Limelight

On November 9, 1983, Gatien opened Limelight to an estimated ten thousand clubgoers. Andy Warhol, Billy Idol, and other celebrities were shepherded past the patrons, who were lined up for six blocks. Some guests arrived dressed as biblical figures. A Jesus impersonator, held aloft on a cross, was refused admission. Religious protestors, horrified at the hedonistic reimagining of a house of God, staged protests outside. Peter Gatien was seen standing on the steps of his church that night, watching the birth of his own American dream.

The same year Limelight was born, a seventeen-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology dropout named Michael Alig was working as a busboy at the club Danceteria on nearby West 21st Street. Michael Alig, like Peter Gatien, had business acumen. As a boy in South Bend, Indiana, Alig sold candy bars out of a shoe box he kept in his locker. He'd buy five for a dollar and sell them at a dollar apiece to classmates, who nicknamed him "Michael the Candy Man." Alig was a five-foot-eight waifish gay teen with soft brown eyes, charismatic energy, a sharp intellect, and a rapacious hunger for attention. Alig had left his small-town roots to reinvent himself in New York. He studied the club business until he became Danceteria's most successful party promoter. Alig would make phone calls all day, then hit the bars at night, handing out free admission tickets to attractive night crawlers. When Alig worked the door, if he thought you were sexy, it didn't matter if you were underage, you were in. And he made sure you had a good timedrink tickets, drugs, and sex were party favors.


Excerpt from Chemical Cowboys by Lisa Sweetingham